My ‘Suicidal’ Road Journal

15 Dec 2012

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By Ekerete Udoh

Last Saturday, I embarked on what on a sober reflection was nothing short of a suicide mission. And as I looked back now, I am still wondering why I elected to undertake such a potentially dangerous assignment. But if I didn’t experience it, I wouldn’t be writing about it now and shining the light on an aspect of our national life that is to say the least embarrassing, and depressing.

Last Saturday, I decided to travel by road from Abuja to Port Harcourt-enroute Uyo to attend the events marking the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the Akwa Ibom State Governor, Barrister Godswill Akpabio. I had arrived Abuja on Thursday via Aero and had wanted to go to Uyo by air as well, but couldn’t secure a seat on either Arik or Aero due to the traffic of Nigerians who had descended upon Uyo for the governor’s 50th birthday events.

Determined to be in Uyo and left with no option, and with a decent Toyota truck (jeep) and a driver who is pretty conversant with the route, I decided to go by road. “Oga, we must leave very early-possibly by 6am, so we can beat the early morning rush,” the driver had suggested to which I affirmed. With a heart full of trepidation, I went to bed thinking about what I was about to do. “How long would it take to get to Port-Harcourt by road?” I had inquired from the driver. “If there is no traffic, we should make it in 12 hours” he had told me point-blank. “12 hours”? I had asked sounding incredulous.

Ordinarily, doing a 12 hour trip should not be an exercise that would elicit trepidation. Most people in America love the thrill of travelling by road and seeing the beauty of the American lush greenery and country lifestyle. During the recent Thanksgiving, more Americans travelled by road than by air according to AAA. Travelling by road is fun and as the legendary writer Jack Kerouac had romanticized in his novel,“ On the Road.”

Ever since I encountered a horrible turbulence flying the little planes that are used for shuttle flights from New York to Washington’s Reagan and Dulles Airports, where the aircraft literally ‘danced’ in the sky until it landed an hour later, I had sworn never to travel by air to Maryland, Washington DC or to Virginia. I usually go by road, and what a beautiful experience it has always been, either by Amtrak or Peter Pan or Greyhound!  I  even drove a few times. The roads are so good and pot-holes free that by the time you arrive your destination, you won’t feel any kind of stress. It was with that kind of a mindset that I tried to reassure myself that it may not be such an ugly experience after all travelling to Port Harcourt by road. The last time I travelled by road here was about 20 years ago, when I visited my parents in  Eket from Lagos, and the journey, though laborious was not exceedingly  “wasteful” to the body.

By exactly 6:30 pm, I went down to meet the driver and having said a short prayer, we set out for what I thought would be an educational experience and it sure turned out to be just that. Shortly after we left Abuja, I started seeing a taste of what was to come. The road now had narrowed to one lane and the drivers were now driving as if they were possessed by satanic passion. Patience which should normally condition the impulse of drivers had taken flight and it now became a battle of wits and dexterity. We had not done two hours when I felt like turning back and cancelling the trip. The road was in a terrible condition with potholes that could swallow the wheels popping up at every interval coupled with the menacing manner the truck drivers drove their ill-serviced trucks, with goods hanging perilously by the side as if with a slight thud, the goods would empty onto any hapless car that was unlucky enough to be near it.

As we got to Okene, the road became extremely hazardous and at a point, a lorry driver intentionally pushed us out of the road and if it was not due to the dexterity of the driver, we would have had a terrible accident. His conductor was literally banging on the roof of our truck and threatening to deal with us if we didn’t leave our lane for him.

For the next  15 hours, ( the driver’s estimated time of arrival was two hours above normal range) I saw why thousands of Nigerians die daily on the road due to irresponsible driving by alcohol and drug-addled drivers who  under normal circumstances should have nothing to do behind the wheel. I saw a country that had sacrificed thousands of its citizens on roads that had taken billions of naira for construction, but whose result should have sent such contractors to prison in other climes, but who are  living like kings and queens and have no business plying the death trap they had constructed, flying First Class cabin instead

I saw a nation that should have long overcome the problems associated with bad road network. I have had the privilege of travelling to many countries that don’t have the kind of resources that we have been blessed with, in this country but whose roads network would make us look like a throwback to the medieval age. Why is this happening in this country? Why are people’s feet not put on fire- those  whom the resources of the nation were entrusted with the expressed task of performing a job and have refused to do so creditably and are still walking as free men and women?

How can a nation feel at peace with itself when its citizens are dying in thousands daily on roads that should have long been dualized and, made safe for travelling? I am mad and mad as hell. This country deserve better that what I saw on the road from Abuja to Port Harcourt. The resources at our disposal and the talents that we pack in this country should have given us some elevated national infrastructure. Why should road travel be akin to embarking on a suicide mission?  The minster of works should as a matter of urgency and I hope he is doing so already demand accountability from those whom contracts have been given to fix those roads.

The only bright spot of the 15 hour of hell was when we travelled from Port Harcourt through Azumini  to Ikot  Abasi and then to Uyo. You were now riding on roads that could compare to what obtains in the western world. If Rivers and Akwa Ibom state governments could fix roads, why is it so difficult for the Federal Ministry of Works the same? What magic did those state governments engender that the officials at the federal level are incapable of replicating? This carnage must stop and it must stop today.  I am always the eternal optimist, but today, I am depressed and sad and as Americans would say “ I ain’t taking it anymore.” My country deserves better than what I saw last Saturday. I am happy to have survived the suicide mission and to tell this story, several thousand did not, and it brings tears to my eyes.

Let’s celebrate the new Bi-partisan spirit that is evolving
One of the highlights of Governor Godswill Akpabio’s Golden Jubilee celebrations was the lecture that was held on Monday-December 10th at LeMeridien Hotel. The chairman of the occasion was the eminent jurist and former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Belgore and had as the guest lecturer, the Nigerian high Commissioner to Canada – Ojo Maduekwe, whose lecture was warmly received and ended with a standing ovation.

The one aspect of the lecture that thoroughly impressed me was the spirit of bi-partisanship that is emerging among the Nigerian political class, especially at the state level. Seated close to the celebrant – Governor Akpabio, were governors representing the opposition parties ACN’s-Adams Oshiomhole of Edo, Olusegun Mimiko from Ondo, and elected on the platform of Labour Party, and Peter Obi who was represented by his wife, Margaret who was elected on APGA platform.

It was refreshing seeing these men subsume their ideological and political affiliations to heap kudos on Governor Akpabio. I think if this spirit can be sustained, it would help make politics more attractive and exciting than what it is today- a zero-sum game fight

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